Call it a fix for speed junkies, a gearhead indulgence, or simply unadulterated fun—BMW has created a place where willing individuals can unapologetically partake in satisfying their thirst for speed in broad daylight. It’s called the Performance Center, and it was created by the marque to give consumers the opportunity to learn precision driving while experiencing the exhilarating performance on tap from vehicles that comprise the company’s sporting lineup.
The mission of the BMW Performance Centers (there are two locations: Spartanburg, S.C., and Thermal, Calif.) is to provide training in performance driving to the general public. The instructors there cater to virtually all levels of experience through carefully crafted programs designed to dramatically improve an individual’s ability and confidence behind the wheel.
The centers offer one- and two-day M Schools, an Advanced M School, a specially tailored Teen School, and a MINI School. I opted for the two-day M school at the Thermal facility. The courses have minimal classroom and whiteboard time to get you into a seat more quickly. Classes are divided into three groups and shuffled between the facility’s multiple courses, switching between the M2, M4, and M5 cars in order to maximize teaching.
The first day’s focus is on corner entry drills and skid pad exercises, progressing to braking drills and line choice on three separate autocross configurations (autocross courses tend toward tight, technical layouts with moderate speeds). Each segment starts with a tightly grouped “follow along” for demonstration of proper lines, followed by a ride-along with the instructor to see how it’s done—a study in flow, tying corners together at a deceptively fast pace, exemplifying the importance of smoothness, and reinforcing the mantra that “smooth is fast.” From there, it’s straight into lapping, with radio instruction from spotters fed into each student’s car. Students also get the opportunity to test their control skills on the polished, slippery-surfaced skid pad sans driver aids.
After lunch and a brief whiteboard session, it’s back out onto the track for timed autocross laps, which is an opportunity to apply the teachings of the day and indulge the competitive instincts with your classmates, who are all fighting the clock for fastest lap. Afterward, there’s a debrief and dinner where awards are handed out for fastest times.
Day two begins with a review of the facility’s big track layout and an overview of braking from speed, apex, and acceleration. The “follow along” is an indicator of how much more speed is going to be carried on this circuit than the previous day’s autocross.
The first drill of the day is designed to show students just how effective the ABS system of the M cars is. The goal is to go to the brake pedal with as much force as possible and bring the car to a full stop. Without question, this is the most impressive aspect of the vehicles and the school—to experience the stopping force of the M cars from speed. In short order, students find themselves braking much later than first imagined, getting the car aligned with the apex and accelerating hard out of the corners. The drills of the previous day, combined with coaching for the larger circuit, result in surprisingly fast laps. The learning curve at the BMW Performance Center is steep, with a steady yet comfortably paced curriculum. Needless to say, in addition to acquiring new skills, the adrenaline rush of being on track in the M cars is an experience that can easily become addictive.